When does a young person become an adult? What’s the line between ‘not-an-adult’ and ‘adult?’ It’s really rather blurred, if you think about it. Legally speaking, people attain majority in many places when they’re 18, or sometimes 21. This means they can vote, enter into contracts, give sexual consent, and more.
But if you think about it, do you really consider an 18-year-old an adult? In some ways, yes, especially legally. But if you know young people in this age group, you know that they’re often in that ‘not-quite-ready-for-adulthood’ category. So, the legal definition doesn’t really capture it. There are, of course, coming-of-age rituals in different cultures and religions (e.g. the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the quinceañera, confirmation, or the kinaalda (that’s the coming-of-age ritual for Navajo girls)). But those rituals usually take place during the early-to-mid teen years. And most of us would likely agree that people that age are not adults.
So, the answer to ‘how do you know when someone’s an adult’ can be murky. And crime fiction explores that murkiness. That shouldn’t be surprising, since the genre shows us ourselves. But it’s really interesting to see how the question is addressed.
Some people think of adulthood as meaning the taking on of adult responsibilities, such as getting a job, minding the children, having a home, and the like. But plenty of very young people do those things. For instance, in Denise Mina’s Garnethill, protagonist Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell is trying to clear her name of suspicion of murdering her former lover, Douglas Brady. At one point, she’s visiting her friend, Leslie. Here’s what Leslie says about some of the children who live near her:
‘‘That’s wee Magsie,’ said Leslie. ‘She’s three and a half. Aren’t ye, wee teuchie?’
Wee Magsie kept her skirt over her face and giggled shyly, rocking from side to side.
‘Yes,’ said the biggest girl, who could only have been seven. ‘I’m her big sister and I’ve to look after her today.’…
‘See that?’ said Leslie. ‘They’re wee mammies before they stop being kids.’’
This child is only seven – certainly not an adult chronologically. but she’s already doing the sort of child-minding that many parents would entrust only to an adult in whom they had confidence.
In Peter May’s Entry Island, Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec is seconded to Entry Island when James Cowell is murdered there. As it is, he has regular bouts of insomnia. But during his trip to the island, he begins to have vivid dreams of stories he was told as a child – stories of his Scottish ancestor, also called Sime. As the novel goes on, we learn more about that Sime, who lived during the early-to-mid 19th Century, and emigrated to Canada. Among other things, we learn that, although he’s a boy by nearly any modern standard, he takes on a great deal of adult responsibility when his father’s off hunting. I don’t think it’s spoiling this novel to say that the 19th-Century Sime’s father is killed. At that point, Sime takes on even more responsibility for his home, his mother and his siblings. That scenario might not be unusual for the times, but it certainly blurs the line between child and adult.
To make matters even murkier, there are also plenty of crime-fictional characters who are chronologically adults, but don’t really seem to have crossed that threshold. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to the Boynton family. Matriarch Mrs. Boynton and her adult children, Lennox, Raymond and Carol, are in the Middle East on a sightseeing tour. With them is Mrs. Boynton’s youngest child, seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Jinny,’ and Lennox’s wife, Natalie. This isn’t a ‘normal’ family trip, though. Mrs. Boynton is malicious, domineering and mentally cruel. Her family members are so cowed that no-one dares to oppose her, and that includes the three oldest Boyntons. Through the eyes of some of the other characters (including Hercule Poirot), we get to know the Boyntons. It’s interesting to see that, although Lennox, Raymond and Carol are chronologically adults (they’re in their twenties to early thirties), they don’t really live like adults, as we usually conceive of that. Several characters make mention of it. But that doesn’t stop them being suspected when Mrs. Boynton is murdered on the second day of the family’s journey to Petra…
In Vicki Delaney’s Winter of Secrets, we are introduced to Wendy Wyatt-Yarmouth, her brother Jason, and five of their friends. All of them are university students on a skiing trip to Trafalgar in British Columbia. They’re all from well-to-do families, so they have no problem affording the trip, renting an SUV, bringing all of the skiing equipment they’ll need and so on. On Christmas Eve, Jason and his best friend, Ewan Williams, are in the SUV the group has rented. They have a terrible accident and go off the road into a nearby river. Jason dies from the injuries he’s received. But it turns out that Ewan was dead – probably for several hours – before the accident. Now, Sergeant John Winters and Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith have a murder case on their hands. And it won’t be easy. All of the people involved are hiding things, and Wendy and Jason’s parents aren’t very helpful. In the end, though, they find out who the murderer is. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how, although these are adults in several ways, they don’t really live completely responsible adult lives.
And then there’s Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus. Dr. Duca Lamberti has recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for euthanasia. One day he’s approached by Pietro Auseri, an engineer who’s concerned about his son, Davide. It seems that Davide has been in a deep depression, and has taken to drinking heavily. Even stints in rehabilitation facilities haven’t been of any help. Auseri wants Lamberti to find out what’s the matter with Davide, and help him. Lamberti isn’t sure what he can do, but he agrees. He soon learns that Davide’s depression stems from an incident a year earlier, when a young woman named Alberta Radelli died after threatening Davide that she would commit suicide if he didn’t take her with him. Davide blames himself for her death, so Lamberti believes that his patient won’t heal unless they learn the truth about the young woman’s death. Davide agrees, and the two look more closely into the matter. It turns out that Alberta’s death was not a suicide at all. Throughout the book, we see that, although Davide Auseri is chronologically an adult, he doesn’t really have an independent life, and Lamberti has to coach him to really start thinking for himself.
As you can see, crime fiction isn’t very helpful when it comes to working out where the line is between ‘adult’ and ‘not-an-adult.’ And it’s quite likely that it’s not really a line, anyway. What do you think? When did you first really think of yourself as an adult? I’m due any day now, I think…
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Pursuit of Happiness.